Starting a new job by dissolving a financially hemorrhaging unit while negotiating
with creditors and state regulators is no one's professional dream scenario.
Dionne Viator, senior vice president and chief financial officer of General Health
System/Baton Rouge (La.) General Medical Center, was "the epitome of grace under
fire" during the shutdown of the Gulf South Health Plans HMO shortly after her
promotion from vice president of finance to CFO in 2001, says William Holman,
president and chief executive officer of both the system and hospital.
"For a new
CFO, that was not the way to have your first year in any organization," Holman says
of the two-location, 448-bed center. "In probably a year's time, we were able to
wrap up and divest ourselves of Gulf South, for which she truly gets the
He cites Viator's professionalism and integrity as primary reasons,
comparing the reactions of the state attorney general and insurance commissioner
staff to the old E.F. Hutton commercial with the tagline: "When E.F. Hutton
talks, people listen."
"That probably wasn't true in the beginning," Holman says.
"But with her presence and the accuracy she spoke with, people realized that this
woman brought something to the table, and people had better listen to what she had
For her part, Viator, 39, remembers Baton Rouge in her early days as "an
organization with strong character but a very depleted balance sheet." Upon the
divestiture of Gulf South, she was named senior vice president and led negotiations
in selling eight units not central to the hospital's mission that had lost a
combined $37 million in fiscal 2001.
"The growth of an integrated delivery
system, which was built in the mid-'80s and perpetuated through the '90s, had
depleted the organization," Viator says of General Health. "It had lost the focus
on patient care. It was stretched too thin."
The divestitures have reduced the
leadership team from 200 to about 70, saving $5.5 million annually in salaries,
Viator says. "We all roll up our sleeves every day," she says. "There's no ivory
tower." Although the sales could have reduced the on-the-floor workforce by 25%,
Holman says the hospital instead just cut positions by 7%, adding registered nurses
and licensed practical nurses.
Viator also ended long-running discussions with
Louisiana State University about the possible sale of the system's 343-bed Mid City
campus and instead moved forward with needed investments there.
Among the results
of all these changes: a reduction of R.N. turnover to 15% last year from 31% in
2000; a 29% increase in the average daily census during that same period; and the
pending ground-breaking for a 98-bed expansion of Baton Rouge's 105-bed outlying
facility on the south side of the city.
Viator says her negotiation and
analytical skills have helped her succeed, but being a team player also has been
key. "I am one opinion of a strong, talented group of individuals," she says.
"Together we come up with the right answer."